If you were to walk along a highway (really, any paved road) in Malawi, it would not be long before a white vehicle slowed down near you. The driver would beep his horn and a guy would be hanging out a side window, lifting his arm, and hollering his destination at you. “YAAAAH, A-LIMBE?!” he might shout, if you happened to be in my neighbourhood. These vehicles are minibuses: the wonder of Malawi, the bane of my existence, the ubiquitous converted panel vans that serve as public transportation in cities and around the country.
At first glance, it seems like maybe a couple of guys just got together and bought a van as a business idea, stripping the interior, putting in four or five rows of bench seating, and squeezing as many people in as possible. One is the driver, usually a bit removed from the fray of getting passengers but also the one who would have to deal with traffic cops should they pull over the van. One is the conductor, collecting the fares (in Blantyre, usually about 100 kwacha, or 25 cents), letting the driver know when to stop, and yelling at people walking by the roadside to see if they need a ride. The two also benefit from a network of “callers,” more men who are positioned at minibus stops along the route who announce where the bus is going. Literally, by yelling it over and over again in a nasally voice. The vans sometimes have hilarious slogans on them, like one in our neighbourhood that read “Bangwe Boyz,” or another I saw the other day with the lettering “Sponsored by Jesus.”
Though it seems like a highly informal system with each minibus set out to get its own business, someone has in fact told me that there is some central minibus authority somewhere, giving licenses and regulating the system. Of course, you’re not always able to tell.
There are no schedules; the bus leaves when it’s full. Sometimes, filling the bus is a quick process, and sometimes, it takes forever. The ride is usually 100 MK, except when it’s not. The minibuses usually have regular routes that start and end in the same place, except when they don’t. In the front window of the bus, there’s usually a sign that says the bus’s destination, except when there’s not (or the sign is wrong). The conductor often leaves bench seating at three across, except when he chooses to squish in four to a row. Sometimes, the minibus terminates early but you’re ushered to another bus that will take you to your destination—except when you’re not, and then you’re kind of left to fend for yourself and find another bus that’s going where you’re going. All you can do is shrug and roll with it. You’re never sure why things work the way they do, but the amazing thing is that they actually do work. People take minibuses every day as their main method of transportation, and amid all the tumult and moments that leave you as a foreigner completely bemused, the system actually functions, in all of its mystery.
The ride itself is sweaty, claustrophobic, and hilarious. A man in a dress shirt will probably be squeezed in next to you, and depending on his height and yours, his armpit may sweat a bit on your shoulder, especially if it’s a hot day. And if it’s raining and you’re pressed against a window, you’ll quickly discover that minibuses are not waterproof. Vendors will walk by the bus windows with samosas, lollipops, newspapers, hand towels (why?), nuts, and other items as the bus sits and waits for more passengers. Less fun are the times when grabby men reach into the window or a beggar stands by the window with an open hand. Once your journey begins, it’s inevitable that some young woman or man will fill the silence of the bus speaking loudly on their cellphone in Chichewa, and a woman will get on with a tiny, adorable, always-silent baby strapped to her back in a chitenje. If you’re lucky, the baby—shocked by the colour of your skin!—gives you googly eyes and maybe reaches out a hand to you, and you and the mum share a happy smile. You pay your fare in crumpled bills whenever the conductor silently outstretches a palm in your direction.
The minibus itself is always decrepit and always sounds on the verge of a breakdown, sputtering exhaust in its mist and bouncing merrily over bumps in the road that jolt you into the side of the bus or a fellow passenger, or through mud puddles so deep you’re certain the bus will get stuck in them. And of course, when you get out, you may either smack your head on the top of the bus, catch your leg on some sharp piece of metal sticking out, or receive an elbow from a fellow passenger.
I may have left you with the impression that a minibus ride is the most horrible thing to experience in Malawi. But here’s the twist: I love them. When the reggae music’s blaring, that cute baby is smiling at me, and I can watch the maize fields glimmer in the afternoon sun out the window, I think to myself: what an amazing place this is. In so many ways, I can’t experience Malawi like a local and will always be an outsider, but on a minibus, I’m a passenger like everyone else, just going about my day.